Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

A Sojourn in Anatolia: Thoughts on Cappadocia and Ephesus

Outside of the bustling metropolis of Istanbul, over 60 million Turkish citizens make their lives everyday in a land of fertility, antiquity, and variability. Anatolia, the vast land bridge between Eastern Europe’s southern fringe and the Middle East, has been a key crossroads (and stronghold) of civilizations for thousands of years, leaving a heritage deeper than almost any other place on earth. The modern Turkish people are simply the latest in a long line of stewards of this land, and their connection to its past can be visualized in the ancient site of Ephesus in the west and in the photogenic, spiritual fairy chimneys of Cappadocia in Central Turkey.

Ephesus was one of the largest, richest, and grandest cities of all of the Greco-Roman world, a wealthy port with over half a million inhabitants at its peak. It was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (now scattered ruins in a swamp), and a major centre of the goddess’ IMG_4760religious cult. The import of faith to the city, or perhaps merely its importance and relative remoteness from both Rome and Jerusalem, attracted early Christian figures. St. Paul preached in Ephesus’ great theatre (whose acoustics are still remarkable today) and wrote letters to its citizens urging conversion to Christ, while St. John the Evangelist is said to have fled the Holy Land with the Virgin Mary after the Crucifixion. Legend has it that both of them lived and died in and around Ephesus, and in the Byzantine era great churches were built there in their honour. There are vistas above and outside of the modest modern town of Selçuk in which the ruined Temple of Artemis and St. John Basilica can be viewed in a direct line with the historic and still-used Isa Bey Mosque, a continuity of edifices of faith over centuries of time.

The ruins of Ephesus themselves are not so ruined. Decades of painstaking reconstruction, much of it funded and performed by Austrians, have left Turkey with one of the best extant physical expressions of ancient civilization anywhere in the world. Columns, walls, sarcophagi, avenues, market squares, forums, statues, fountains, latrines, mosaics, terraced residences, even suspected brothels are laid out in exquisite wrecks, a sketched civic plan on an epic scale. Nagging qualms about the historical ethics of such large-scale restoration and reconstruction might rise to the surface at the sight of modern bricks and mortar, but the overall effect is so staggering, so evocative of a vanished way of living, that it is impossible not to be converted to the value of the exercise.

No such reconstructions are needed to emphasize the fascinating singularity of the beauty of Cappadocia. A landscape of arid canyons, wind-carved high buttes, and towering rock pinnacles known as fairy chimneys, Cappadocia attracts tourists today (well-served by its scattered small towns, particularly Göreme, with its Wild West IMG_4966by way of Anatolia feel), but it has drawn visitors for centuries, many of them more humble and fearful for the future than European or East Asian vacationers.

A remote and inviting refuge for early Christians fleeing bursts of Roman imperial persecution, Cappadocia was widely inhabited and carries the distinctive signs of that habitation. The soft volcanic rock of the region, which rain and wind has gouged into the mysterious hoodoos of the fairy chimneys, is also easily dug into by human tools. Its caves maintained a cool temperature year-round, and housed entire underground cities, as well as less subterranean residences, storehouses, artisans’ shops, monasteries, and churches. The latter, painted with often spectacularly colourful Byzantine Christian frescoes dating back as far as the 10th Century, can still be seen today, a series of UNESCO-protected testaments to an isolated but tight-knit troglodytal existence.

The landscape of Cappadocia is almost a metaphor for Turkey in living rock. Initially appearing samey and undistinguished, formed by forces beyond the human, the variety and multitude of Cappadocia’s geological forms reveals itself with longer acquaintance. Individual pinnacles, valleys, and canyon walls have been eroded into objects of particular beauty by the forces of nature, and the fairy chimneys shaped by human hands into a more intentional art of no less aesthetic force. Like the Cappadocian landscape, Turkey has been eroded by the forces of history, and continues to be. But that erosion and purposeful efforts by Anatolia’s successive generations to carve a society and culture distinct and reflective of their milieu and experiences has given modern Turkey a uniquely appealing form to face the world.

A Sojourn in Anatolia: Thoughts on Istanbul

In spite of, if not quite in defiance of, recent ISIS-connected terrorist attacks and the agitations of the Kurdish minority in the country, I have recent completed a vacation of approximately twelve days in Turkey. Tourism and foreign visits to Turkey in general, such a vital sector of its modern economy, have been curtailed by official travel warnings and general apprehension in the West at current conditions there. This is unfortunate, as the Turkish Republic is a rich and fascinating nation with a deep and vital history and many world-renowned (and less famed) sites to explore. It is not without its issues both internal and external, but there is much about it to reward the mildly braver traveller.

Many of Turkey’s chief attractions are concentrated in its bustling, sprawling, ancient metropolis of Istanbul. One of the world’s great cities for nearly two millenia, the urban region now known as Istanbul was one of the great capitals of the medieval world, both under that name under the Ottoman Empire and before it as Constantinople, the capital IMG_4299city of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Most of Istanbul’s great sights date from its dual imperial periods, Byzantine and Ottoman; some, like the great bulky landmark Hagia Sophia which was a church, a mosque, and now a museum, were a focus of both regimes. Like Granada’s Alhambra or the Mesquita of Cordoba, the conflicts and divisions of history have left their signs and scars upon the architecture itself in Hagia Sophia: monumental Qu’ran scripture in Arabic calligraphy alongside sparkling golden mosaics of holy Christian figures. Norse visitors (perhaps members of the Varangian Guard of the medieval Byzantines) have even left enigmatic runic graffiti on a balustrade as a humbler witness to history’s passage.

These dichotomies, trichotomies, and multichotomies of history, politics, religion, and ethnicity are likewise writ large onto Istanbul’s very cityscape in dramatic ways. Istanbul occupies both banks of the Bosphorus Strait which connects the Sea of Marmara (and thus the Mediterranean, and thus the Atlantic) to the Black Sea and has often been considered the boundary between Europe and Asia, West and East, Christianity and Islam. The modern Istanbul echoes these divisions within the singular multiplicity of the contemporary global metropolis. The Bosphorus still separates European and Asian Istanbul (though a underground subway tunnel recently open as a tentative causeway), with the lion’s share of the major attractions and modern constructions on the western banks of the strait and a more conservative Muslim population residing on the east side.

The further boundary of the Golden Horn, spanned by the Galata Bridge, makes the division tripartite and evokes a political dimension special to the modern republic. The districts of Galata, Beşitkaş, and Beyoğlu in the general vicinity of Taksim Square vibrate with the artistic and commercial energy of a modern cosmopolitan capital. Iskitlal Avenue is one of the world’s truly exciting pedestrian boulevards, flanked by shops, cafes, bars, cinemas, theatres, consulates, churches, mosques, schools, museums, restaurants, and magnifcent architectural facades, with the ribs of Victorian arcades and winding side-streets snaking off from its central spine. It’s little wonder that the IMG_4328anti-civilization fanatics of ISIS targetted this hive of human activity in their recent deadly bombings, but if the continued hum of bodies and dreams on this avenue barely over a week later was any indication, the zealots have discouraged few from attending on this bazaar of mercantile gathering.

Behind the display of past fascinating history and current capitalist prosperity lie deeper cleavages in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s ambitious (and always inherently authoritarian) republican project of modern Turkey. The conservative, fundamentally religious, and increasingly restrictive current regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has eroded the secularist nature of the nation as envisioned by Atatürk and has cracked down on political dissent in recent years, in particular since the popular protests focused on Taksim in 2013. I spoke with one of the Taksim protestors who sees little to be salvaged from a liberal, artistically-geared perspective in Turkey as it is developing under Erdoğan, a mix of encroaching Islamic prudishness, capitalist callowness, and iron-fisted authoritarianism with diminishing tolerance for the kaleidoscopic viewpoints of the modern world.

Istanbul, like the rest of Turkey, is full of contrasts, often stark, often subtle. Those contrasts can be marked clearly on its historic landmarks or almost imperceptibly to the cursory glance of the average visitor on its society, culture, and politics. It can be seen in the funky alternative spirit of the Taksim districts, the mercantile aggressiveness of its vibrant shops and restaurants, and the traditional rhythms of established life for hundreds of years. The latter shifting continuity of civilization is even more evident outside of the largely modern metropolis of Istanbul, and will be a more forefront concern of my second piece on my Turkey visit, encompassing the region around the ancient city of Ephesus and the Cappadocia area.

Film Review: The Trip to Italy

The Trip to Italy (2014; Directed by Michael Winterbottom)

The sequel to The Trip consists of, well, another trip. Following the surprise Stateside middlebrow arthouse success of Michael Winterbottom’s feature-length edit of his BBC2 comedy-drama-travel series starring Britside jacks-of-all-media-trades Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, another season-long vacation and resulting theatrical cut version was an obvious step. Once again accompanying Coogan and Brydon (or rather slightly fictionalized versions of themselves) as they drive through gorgeous landscapes, eat delectable gourmet cuisine, visit historic sites connected with long-dead British poets, and bust each other consistently up, The Trip to Italy transposes this successful formula that never feels formulaic to the sun-baked western coast of the Italian Peninsula.

Brydon, a Welsh television and stage personality known in Britain for his vast array of impersonations, is the initiating force of this particular sojourn, taking over the reins from the slightly more famous Coogan in that regard with a narrative conceit of a series of newspaper columns to be written about their travels. Brydon is also the beneficiary of the majority of the plot developments in The Trip to Italy. Coogan spent their prior trip through the north of England laboriously breaking up with his long-distance girlfriend, bedding photographers and inn employees, and being rewarded for his struggles with a lucrative primetime TV drama gig in the U.S. Meanwhile, Brydon drifted along, content in his marriage and fatherhood and happy to eat, drive, and joke with his buddy Coogan. In Italy, however, it is Brydon who has trouble relating to his family at home, engages in a sexual rendezvous with an attractive sailing expat, and auditions for a high-profile role in a Michael Mann gangster drama (he does a bald-faced Al Pacino impression, and the casting people love it), while Coogan tentatively reconnects with his son.

Incident keeps The Trip to Italy from feeling too casual, but Winterbottom is a smart enough filmmaker to recognize that the casual conversations between these two men is the core appeal of this concoction. Much of the competitive tension between Coogan and Brydon that gave The Trip hints of an edge is gone; they take it easier on each other, and are more comfortable with one another’s company. They’re also a little older and feeling it, as the hints of mortality thrown in their path by the sites associated with Byron and Shelley and their Romantic entourage make the slow march towards death even harder to ignore (when they meet up with Coogan’s son, it’s in a catacomb full of skulls and palpable Oedipal echoes).

But let’s not overlook the busting up, of which there is plenty. A fine dinner at a white-tablecloth restaurant (Winterbottom indulges some food-porn tendencies, with loving shots of chefs crafting their exquisite meals and waiters serving them) rolls into a comedic riff about Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, and the rest of The Dark Knight Rises (as well as Pacino, Marlon Brando, and I could go on, because they do). Even on holiday, we understand, these funny men can’t ever turn it off.

The Trip to Italy is not just an amusing bourgeois road movie undertaken by a pair of comfortable and talented friends, mind you. It’s a film about the modern middle-aged male’s search for meaning, connection, and purpose in a fast-paced world that leaves them behind even as it affords them extraordinary privilege. If it isn’t as overtly about that as, say, Alexander Payne’s Sideways or Coogan’s own Showtime dark comedy Happyish, it’s much more enjoyable and subtly sophisticated in its approach to the subject. Its touch is light and renewable, where a heavier tread in dealing with the existential angst of wealthy, aging white men would have demanded criticism and even dismissal.

There’s a mild ironic reflection in the journey of Coogan and Brydon when compared to the Romantic quest for truth of exiled Lord Byron that Winterbottom is slyly aware of, for certain. But an ironic contrast between the middle-aged masculine crisis and another more aggressive strain of disaffection provides The Trip to Italy with its most memorable and strangely resonant moments. Coogan shoots down Brydon’s well-laid plans for a driving soundtrack of Welsh music (most likely to spare himself interminable Tom Jones impersonations), but proves more tolerant of another proposed musical selection: Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. Cruising along winding Italian roads in a Mini, singing along to Alanis’ passionate sonic diary entries of encyclopedic angst like “Hand in My Pocket” and “All I Really Want”, these creative, likable, funny British men find a weird form of universal catharsis by contextualizing their uncertainty and anxiety in comparison to a classic of overdramatic existential disquiet. Things aren’t really so bad as all that, for these guys or for anyone else, The Trip to Italy comes around to admitting along the way.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Travel

A Sojourn in the Pacific: Thoughts on Hawaii

February 2, 2015 3 comments

Roughly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies an archipelago whose warm weather, languid coastline sunsets, and edenic profusion of tropical flora is generally accepted in popular aesthetics as the nearest natural approximation of the Judeo-Christian vision of paradise. This is certainly the ironclad image of Hawaii peddled by tourism boards, hotel operators, tour guides, and real estate developers, that of a mild, comfortable, frequently pretty vacation destination. A holiday-perfect place in the sun, conveniently available to the world but especially to Americans as one of the 50 states, with a history both patriotic and romantic.

This manicured picture of Hawaii is not exactly untrue, as far as it goes. Its excellent climate, idyllic natural beauty, and cultural patrimony are unquestionable. A visitor gets this impression especially strongly on Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian islands. Having risen from the ocean floor on mounds of hardened, nutrient-rich lava bursting through a moving hot spot in the earth’s crust, Kauai is about 6 million years old, and thus has had more time to grow into a richly-adorned living botanical garden than many of its fellow islands in the chain (though it has some human-arranged versions of those gardens IMG_3770as well, most notably the Allerton Garden in the National Tropical Botanical Gardens near the old plantation town of Koloa).

With no more active volcanoes to increase its size, Kauai is eroding gradually into the ocean; the effects of this epic erosive process are most visible on the dramatic Na Pali Coast on the island’s north shore, its near-vertical verdant cliffs and ridges snaking towards the reductive ocean like inverted fingernail scratches. It’s gorgeous but also imposing, aesthetically potent but also pregnant with the awesome danger inherent in the natural world. Little wonder that Steven Spielberg shot most of the locations for Jurassic Park there.

If this spectre of the mortal peril underlying geologically-scaled natural forces pokes through the green curtain of beauty on Kauai intermittently, it is wholly inescapable on the island of Hawaii, commonly referred to as the Big Island to avoid confusion with the state or archipelago that shares its name. The youngest and largest of the islands, the Big Island is also the only volcanically active land mass above sea level in the archipelago, having been formed relatively quickly in geological terms (over a mere half-million years). Its sense of grand, catastrophic geological drama is unmatched in the Pacific and perhaps the world. From its coast, alternately sun-baked and rain-soaked, encompassing gentle beaches (of white, black, and even green sand) and treacherous rocky outcrops, it is possible to progress above 13,000 feet to the peak of its twin sleeping mountains, Mauna Kea IMG_3975and Mauna Loa, in the space of a couple of hours (although, with altitude sickness in mind, it wouldn’t be advisable to cover that vertical space too quickly).

The intense threat of this place often overwhelms its scenic wonders. From the thunderous waves with deadly undertow potential to the frigid mountain summits to the rivers of fire spilling from the three-decade eruption of Kilauea, the Big Island can lull with its stark magic but promises the potential of death behind every winking sunset as well. The islands’ first and most celebrated pasty-white foreign tourist encountered this fatal potential firsthand: British navigator Captain James Cook met a bloody end in the island’s picturesque Kealakekua Bay, his skull stove in by Native Hawaiians in the shallows of what is now one of the world’s finest and most tranquil snorkeling reefs.

True believers in Hawaii’s paradisical serenity may balk at such gauche reminders of a less idyllic past, but bare history rarely sugarcoats. My views of the last two centuries of Hawaiian history were largely formed by Sarah Vowell’s informative and wonderfully readable Unfamiliar Fishes, which I devoured on the long travel day to the islands from the Eastern Seaboard. Mixing travel literature with history, Vowell interweaves her own idiosyncratic treks through the islands to historical sites and museums with an account of the period from Cook’s stopover in 1779 to the archipelago’s annexation to the United States a little over a century later.

What Unfamiliar Fishes makes clear is that Cook’s arrival set in motion both local indigenous changes and larger imperial forces that moved astonishingly quickly to enfold Hawaii into the rapidly-developing modern world and, consequently, into the American Republic. New England Evangelical missionaries followed Cook’s lead in 1820, with Jesus Christ quickly filling the void left by a traditional set of religious practices and social customs that distintegrated swiftly under the stress of the examples of off-island society and destructive irruptions of off-island disease. Kamehameha vowell_unfamiliar_fishes_bookthe Great, a ruthless but astute warrior chief who united the islands under his dynastic authority (a unity achieved through mass slaughter of resistant forces, which sets the streets, parks, and malls named after him across the archipelago in quite a different light), also left a kingdom and a culture susceptible to foreign influence and eventually takeover. A coup masterminded by the missionaries’ sons (also wealthy landowners in the rapidly-developed plantation system that dominated the Hawaiian economy for 3/4s of a century until tourism displaced it) in 1893 removed Kamehameha’s descendant Queen Lili’uokalani, paving the way for a cynically imperial annexation by the U.S. upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Vowell, an outspoken liberal and NPR regular, sees plentiful parallels between the then-contemporary Iraq War’s imperial grasping under Republican President George W. Bush and the Spanish-American War’s imperial grasping under Republican President William McKinley. But she also pulls out illustrative incidents from Hawaiian history that further reflect American social, political and cultural traits and tendencies. American control over Hawaii was and still is justified in terms of the inevitability of westward expansion, manifest destiny stretching into the Pacific. But in this most beautiful of states, Vowell is able to find much that was ugly about how Hawaii became a state in the first place.

Early in Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell recounts visiting one of Hawaii’s iconic banyan trees in a town square. These impressive trees, with their insatiable, rhizomatic root structures, do not resemble single-trunk growths so much as multitudinous wooden vines. They are more like contiguous forests than single trees, and make a strong impression on so many visitors to Hawaii (I first visited the islands when I was 2 years old, and “banyan tree” was one of my first spoken words) that one might believe that they had been growing there for centuries.

But banyans are not native to Hawaii; like so many of the islands’s flora and fauna species, they are invasive, brought from India. Furthermore, their exponential expansion is nearly unstoppable; Vowell’s local guide tells her that gardeners are kept quite busy trimming the snaking roots and branches to keep the town’s tree from toppling most of its buildings. Vowell intelligently presents this image as a metaphor for her own view of Hawaiian history (and, I must admit, now mine as well), but without specific definition. We are left to read it as reflecting the pervasive and ineradicable foreign influence that has made Hawaiian into the diverse culture it is today, as well as the damaging cultural reality of that influence. But as presented, it is also an image of natural forces threatening the structural integrity of civilization. This last impression is inescapable in this mid-ocean land forged by water and fire.

A Sojourn in Spain: Thoughts on Andalucia

July 17, 2014 2 comments

It’s a deep historical irony that some five centuries after Spain’s rulers utilized all of the power at their disposal to remove conquered non-Christian minorities such as the Muslim Moors and the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, many of the country’s major cultural tourist attractions are grounded in the unique heritage of these vanished communities. This is most true of the southern region of Spain that was held under the sway of Islamic authorities for the longest period, known from the 8th to 15th Century as al-Andalus and now the semi-autonomous region of Andalucia. The Muslim influence on the history and culture of this part of Spain is now especially reified and monetized as a particularly notable feature of the region, despite a long history of official erasure of this precise sort of cultural difference.

Across Andalucia are telling signs of this process of erasure of these now-restored elements and replacement with Spain’s particularly fervent Catholic culture, often emblazoned into the enduring architecture of its ancient cities. Moorish architectural embellisments survive on old gates, walls, arches, and buildings, with occasional more extensive masterpieces surviving behind walled-off sections of interiors and thanks to the rare progressive impulse towards preservation winning out under the aegis of Early Modern and Enlightenment authorities. Some Jewish sites, including three pre-expulsion medieval sinagogues, survive as well (although two of them are further north, in Toledo). Even when the specific original edifices are no longer standing, architectural concepts endure: the comforting, leafy courtyards (“patios”) that hide in private residence in Andalucia’s cities are a direct inheritance from the Moors, just as the ablution fountains and minarets of their mosques became garden cloisters and bell towers in the Catholic cathedrals built over them. Defining cultural features of modern Spain (and Andalucia especially) like tapas and flamenco are often traced to Muslim sources as well.

IMG_2953The region’s largest city and governmental seat, Seville, preserves mere echoes of the once-thriving Islamic kingdom. In its Alcazar palace, Moorish gardens with citrus trees and gently gurgling fountains ring the interior rooms, many of which boast spectacular, intricate decoration in the Moorish style commissioned of converso craftsmen by King Pedro I soon after the city was conquered by Christian armies. These are the quintessential works of the mudejar architectural style, the adaptation of Islamic architectural tropes for the buildings of Christian rulers. Seville’s most recognizable building, the Giralda bell tower adjacent to its massive, gloomy Gothic cathedral, is an adapted minaret, the elegant patterns on its lower section now topped by Late Renaissance crenelations for the bells.

In this way, the narrative stream of history as it is written on buildings is perhaps more immediately and strikingly visual apparent nowhere but in Andalucia. The architectural intrusions of early post-Reconquista Christian monarchs on the magnificent constructions of the defeated Moors demonstrate the sudden, harsh detours connected with the privileging of a new faith or set of cultural and aesthetic beliefs over an older one.

One Christian perpetrator of these surmountings stands above all others in the Spanish context: King Charles I, a.k.a. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Every major surviving Moorish landmark in Andalucia seems to have survived its greatest threat in Charles V’s ostentatious Renaissance legacy projects. Pedro’s mudejar chambers in Seville’s Alcazar stand alongside Charles’ austere rooms with wooden-beam ceilings, which replaced more elaborately-decorated older designs. A monumental square palace still bearing his name seems to have been dropped into the midst of the organic, sensual sprawl of Granada’s hilltop Alhambra like a heavy book on an elegant spider, though it cannot intrude on the rare magnificence of the Nasrid-era palaces next to it. Most damningly and unfortunately, the sylvan procession of elegant columns and candy-striped arches of the Great Mosque of Cordoba are sharply interrupted by a horrifying, gaudy Baroque nave, altar and choir that even Charles V had enough sense to realize was a tragic aesthetic mistake (not that he was so distraught as to undo the change, mind you).

It is in Cordoba’s great monument to the era of al-Andalus that history’s upheavals are writ largest and starkest. Though colloquially referred to as the Great Mosque or the Mezquita-Catedral in tourist-focused literature and advertisements, it is never called anything but a cathedral upon the holy premises themselves. There is a certain defiance to this labelling that transfers into the audio materials and guides for visitors, which call Charles V’s Baroque addition “controversial” but steadfastly IMG_3145refuse to elaborate that the controversy is above all aesthetic, as well as imparting cynical pecuniary motives to those among the city’s grandees who contemporaneously opposed its construction. The building may only be so notable due to the architectural inspiration of a rival faith, but never is the visitor allowed to forget which institution of belief runs the show now.

Still, even if the sightlines of marching columns are fouled by the central Christian addition and the numerous side-chapels, the Mosque of Cordoba offers illustrative microcosms of the historical processes that witness one value-system overcoming another. Multiple eras of history are visible, sometimes simultaneously in the naked eye of the observer. A glass floor reveals excavated mosaics beneath the church floor from a former Roman basilica, Visigothic ruins sit in display cases nearby, the Muslim arches run along in colour-alternating rows (the oldest of them held up by repurposed Roman and Visigothic columns), and Christian devotional paintings hang from chapel altars. The eras of Cordoban history are stacked before your eyes like a layer cake. Cordoba’s Mezquita-Catedral, perhaps more than any other historical site in Europe if not in the entire world, renders the gradations of historical change with the clear visual demarcations of geological layers in the earth.

Spain itself today still reveals those gradations of historical change in its society, culture, and monuments, though you may have to look more closely to find them than in Cordoba. If Spain at large is a kaleidoscope of regional identities and conflicting histories drawn together into a patchwork state, then Andalucia is a microcosm of that effect as well as an amplification. Spain, it seems, is more Spain in Andalucia than anywhere else.

Categories: Art, Culture, History, Travel

A Sojourn in Spain: Thoughts on Madrid and Toledo

A mere two weeks in a country with such regional diversity and historical richness as Spain is hardly enough to get a full measure of one of Europe’s most fascinating nations. But the character, history, and artistic heritage of certain of its regions can emerge in even so short a time spent exploring them.

For many, the entry point into Spain is Madrid, the national capital, largest metropolis, and transportation, institutional, cultural, and geographical centre of the country. A bustling modern city, Madrid cannot boast the deep, fascinating history of many of the older Spanish cities (especially those in the South). Though the city site has been continually habitated since pre-Roman times, Madrid has only been a significant centre since the mid-16th Century, when Hapsburg King Philip II relocated his court there from older, less growth-friendly Toledo. Consequently, very few of the city’s landmarks pre-date that time, with the majority of its institutional and royal edifices built in the century or two after this shift. In contrast to the tight-packed, labyrinthine medieval streets of older cities like Toledo, Seville, or Granada, Madrid is laid out in the wide boulevards and plazas of the era of its Bourbon monarchs.

Madrid does aggregate cultural attractions from across Spain’s historic realms, however. Its golden triangle of major national art museums – the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza, and Reina Sofia – bring together an embarrassment of artistic riches (many of them derived from the Habsburg royal collection) from Bosch to Velazquez to Goya to Picasso in a concentrated area. More treasures can be seen in the Palacio Real across the city centre and El Escorial, the devout Philip II’s massive palace-monastery-basilica complex outside the city limits. But Madrid, lovely and easily-navigated and livable as it is, carries the feeling of a relatively recent and governmentally-forced national capital for a nation defined by its resolute regional identities.

El Greco’s View of Toledo

Its obvious counterpoint is Toledo. Formerly the nominal capital and base for the royal court, Toledo’s growth was stunted by its unique and picturesque location along the slopes of a commanding hillside, its iconic Alcazar and Gothic cathedral crowning the rise with the aforementioned medieval streets spidering paths to and fro below and around them. A civic construction that makes much more sense as a defensible Middle Ages stronghold than as a sprawling modern Western democratic capitalist economic unit like Madrid has become, Toledo’s skyline is nonetheless lodged in the popular consciousness thanks to its legendary native artist, El Greco, who famously painted the cityscape of his time with swirling, foreboding clouds above it.

And yet Toledo, with its historic sites and strong claim to the title of Spain’s religious capital, is also redolent of the complex web of diverse influences that makes up Spanish history. Philip II put the city’s golden years as Spain’s active heart behind it in 1561, and his father Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and Spain-unifying great-grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella spread their historical legacies and major monuments across the great former Moorish cities of Andalucia (which I will discuss more in a subsequent post). A city now best known for its surviving Catholic landmarks and now purely-touristic swordmaking industry, Toledo’s deeper connection to what can be tentatively but perhaps anachronistically called “Spanishness” can be most resonantly traced through its two most celebrated creative figures: El Greco and Miguel de Cervantes.

In addition to defining the city of his time on canvas, El Greco spread many of his finest works throughout Toledo, where he lived and worked for the better part of his life. His spectacular masterpiece The Burial of the Count of Orgaz remains one of the city’s top attractions, and the 400-year anniversary of his death has seen the entire Castile-La Mancha region launch a commemorative cultural celebration of this most famous and iconic “native” son.

But those quotation marks are key to understanding what El Greco means to Spanish cultural nationalism: El Greco, as his frequently-employed moniker indicates, was born in Greece (Domenikos Theokotopoulos is his real name) and resided and trained in Italy before finally relocating to Spain. Operating outside of the royal patronage that most significant artists of his period relied upon (he contributed only a single commission to Philip’s enormous El Escorial project, and that was purportedly a disappointment to his patron) and also failing to secure multiple commissions for the Toledo Catherdral (following a contentious negotiation with the cathedral’s committee over his fee for The Disrobing of Christ), El Greco’s singular and avant-garde artistic vision and thematic daring put him outside the artistic mainstream of his period, though his abilities were recognized by his peers and he had an active workshop nonetheless.

El Greco did very well as a portraitist, but it is his religious paintings, with their elongated, otherworldly figures and almost Expressionistic flourishes of haunting, spectral paint strokes, that define him in the collective consciousness. Commonly identified with a strongly mystical strain of Catholicism (he was an icon painter in his formative years on Crete), El Greco is the master artist of the Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain of the Black Legend, that vaunted, lamented Northern European conception of Spain as a land of grim castles overlooking parched plains, dim stone cathedrals, black-clad priests and inquisitors, and deep-seated populist superstitions and mystical beliefs and practices.

First circulated by English and Dutch Protestant propaganda during those countries’ Late 16th-Century conflicts with the Spanish, this pernicious but false idea of Spain finds some support in the fervent Catholicism of its defender-of-the-faith monarchs, from Ferdinand and Isabella’s completion of the Reconquista and expulsion of the peninsula’s Jewish population in 1492 to Charles V’s opposition to Martin Luther and Henry VIII’s potential divorce to the continuing sinister activities of the Inquisition. In fact, El Greco’s very presence in Spain, like that of many of the Italian artists hired as court painters and to work on El Escorial at about the same time, stands as compelling evidence for the international scope and cosmopolitanism of Habsburg Spain rather than to its religiously-stunted insularity.

Additionally, El Greco’s contemporary Cervantes and his literary masterpiece Don Quixote exerts a strong presence in Toledo and further undermines the Black Legend framing of the culture and society of Golden Age Spain. Located in picturesque La Mancha, the home seat of the wandering, delusional, self-styled knight-errant of Spain’s virtual national novel, Toledo is awash with Quixote memorabilia, and the traveller half-expects a tall, thin old man in armour on a skinny horse to be glimpsed on the sun-cracked roads cutting through the plains outside of the city at any moment, a plump sidekick on a burro riding at his side. Although frequently identified as a highly religious text supportive of national church doctrine, Quixote includes in its sprawling narrative plentiful critiques of the society and culture of Cervantes’ Spain as well as the unswerving authority of the Church. Its colourful and deeply humanist pastoral view of Golden Age Spain challenges the discursive prerogatives of the Black Legend.

It is also a text deeply troubled by Spain’s struggles with the non-ethnic Spanish internal minorities that it had spent the past century marginalizing and eventually expelling: not only the Jews in the late 1400s but also the conversos (Jews or Muslims who accepted conversion to Christinanity in order to remain in the country) and Moriscos (specifically Muslims who took the same deal, or their descendants) affected by later decrees. The cultural and artistic legacy of these departed peoples, of the ghosts of Spain’s unmatched social diversity in Medieval Europe, is much more apparent in the former Muslim realm of al-Andalus, now known as the semi-autonomous region of Andalusia. A second set of traveller’s thoughts will consider these ghosts along their historical pathways in the south of Spain.

Categories: Art, History, Travel

A Sojourn in the Southwest: Thoughts on Arizona

January 5, 2014 Leave a comment

I can’t say that the prospect of visiting the state of Arizona was one that excited or enticed me particularly. A brief spell of snowbirding in warmer climes with family was not an unappealing concept, especially with a cold spell following on the heels of an ice storm that had left Toronto and environs hobbled and patchily attached to the overtaxed power grid. Still, my travel preferences tend towards the culturally-rich, and for all of its striking desert landscapes, the Valley of the Sun is not really that. It’s a sprawled suburban landscape of freeways, “power centres” (do they still call retail parks that, in a vain attempt at aggrandizement?), fast food franchises, and sport complexes occupied by corporate charity cases. It’s the land of Barry Goldwater, Jon Kyl, and Joe Arpaio, a Red State trench of bottom-feeding reactionary conservatism and xenophobia between relaxed New Mexico and Democratic Party monolith California. It’s full of wealthy retirees from the U.S. and Western Canada with questionable taste and the progressive visitor wishes he or she did not have to share the natural wonders with so many luxury sedans and golf shirts and Italian bistros settled in next to Safeways.

But the environment is so climatologically pleasant that relaxing one’s ideological and moral predilections proves nearly as easy as relaxing one’s physical tension. The diversity of the landscape also destabilizes preconceptions. It’s quite possible, in a half-day’s drive, to pass through three or four distinct zones. From the Sonoran desert of patchy, hardy vegetation like the towering saguaro cactus through scratchy, bare highlands north of Phoenix, the traveller can reach the imposing red-hued rocks clustered about Sedona, the coniferous forests and snow-capped peaks of the San Franciscos around Flagstaff, and, of course, the astounding Grand Canyon.

IMG_2477The latter, a true world wonder of spectacular geology, defies hyperbole and conventional description and photography both. It simply must be seen with the naked eye, scanned with one’s own personal in-skull telescope, to be believed. Protected in a national park that nonetheless allows for a selection of in-park accommodation and limited opportunities for capitalist consumption, Grand Canyon is not exactly untouched by the hand of modern American civilization. Indeed, the long-term consequences of the damming of the Colorado River that carved its cliffs down a mile deep are yet to be fully understood. But the Canyon is an island of irreducible wonder in a country that too often commodifies and apportions wonder, often selling it to the highest bidder. It stands inevitably apart, a timeless scar in the land that can still surprise.

It’s not merely the strange, spare natural beauty of Arizona that can captivate, mind you. There is some rare and precious culture to be sussed out of the place, after all. Much of it resides in Scottsdale, Phoenix’s toney luxury suburb with its stretch of art galleries in its downtown. But it’s not merely minor Warhol prints and overpriced carvings of horses that attract artistic attention. The giant of American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, set up shop outside of a less IMG_2613developed Scottsdale in the 1930s and built Taliesin West, a series of low, sloping bungalows that served as his winter home for the last two decades of his life. Now a prestigious school of architecture proceeding from Wright’s principles, Taliesin West was conceived as a structure in union with nature. Wright’s late-period style of unbroken straight lines and triangular forms, which dominate the complex’s structures, may not strike a contemporary viewer as being quite as organic as the master believed it to be. But the buildings he designed for his use and for those close to him cannot help but grant a keen insight into a boundless creative mind, as well as provide moments of aesthetic illumination.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Arizona is the better Arizona, a landscape where culture and knowledge meld and intermingle with the remarkable natural formation and growths rather than layer the faceless monuments of consumerism overtop of them. It’s this Arizona that is worth visting, even if it can be little harder to pinpoint precisely. But it’s there, in between the golf courses and expensive real estate, waiting to be experienced.

Categories: Travel

Film Review: The Trip

October 28, 2013 1 comment

The Trip (2010; Directed by Michael Winterbottom)

It only stands to reason that Steve Coogan, perceived for so long as the great British comedic performer who has failed to break through to a larger international (especially American) audience, would sooner or later begin to construct self-reflexive meta-commentaries on this perception through his work. The Trip is just such a project, a character-centric sort-of-extension of director Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy meta-adaptation A Cock and Bull Story.

Coogan and Welsh comedian and impressionist Rob Brydon play exaggerated, egocentric versions of themselves along the lines of that earlier film, in this edited feature-film edition of the BBC Two TV series. The premise is that Coogan has planned and booked a romantic gastronomic tour of country inns and fine-dining restaurants across the North of England for himself and his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley).

Unfortunately, Mischa flies to America to write a magazine story about Las Vegas prostitutes instead (and to get away from what is evidently a failing relationship), leaving Coogan with a full itinerary for two and only himself for company. This will not do, so he invites his friend Brydon along. The latter is pried from his affectionate wife and child with some difficulty, and with some trepidation on Coogan’s part, as their relationship seems largely grounded in laddy but borderline passive-aggressive professional one-up-manship.

Coogan and Brydon load into the former’s Range Rover and drive across fog-shrouded moors along winding country lanes (there’s a running joke about Coogan’s tedious obsession with planning the driving route and laying it out in great detail for Brydon as they set off each day). Along the way, they sample (and josh at) elegant fashionable cuisine (Brydon always seem to order the scallops), admire quaint inn architecture and natural landscapes, learn about and discuss the exploits of Lake District poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, and bust each other’s chops so consistently that they practically return home swollen and sore. The bromantic tropes may suggest mainstream comedic convention, but the balance and execution impart an energy and humour all The Trip‘s own.

Coogan is portrayed as a self-absorbed womanizer who, despite dutifully wandering the wastes (which are beautifully shot by cinematographer Ben Smithard) to find decent cell reception to call Mischa, hooks up with Eastern-European innkeepers (“improving Polish-English relations”, as Brydon puts it) and Spanish photographers he meets along the way. He’s also quite hoping to be recognized more often, but is frustrated when the cheerier Brydon, with his collection of ingratiating, quickly-offered impersonations, is noticed by the locals more than he is. Coogan copes by quibbling with the accuracy of Brydon’s takes on Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Anthony Hopkins, all while offering his own impressions as superior alternatives. Indeed, Coogan seems so unreasonably jealous of Brydon and his abilities (or perhaps of his relative happiness) that, in one brilliantly-modulated monologue sequence in a churchyard burial ground, he faux-eulogizes him as a silly conjurer of cheap tricks and parlour games, rather than a serious artist like the great Steve Coogan himself.

The key to that scene, and to Winterbottom’s whole film (or television show that has become a film), is how Coogan pulls back from more vicious jabs and softens his blows with humour, affection, and generous openings for rebuttals and ripostes from his chum Brydon. At the core of The Trip is a knot of affection shared sometimes begrudgingly between two clever, funny men who feel as liberated in each other’s creative presence as they feel threatened by that same presence.

Much of The Trip is improvised by Coogan and Brydon, and Winterbottom (who also directed Coogan in his finest film role in 24 Hour Party People) grants them the space to pursue their comedic fancies. Their riffs are blissfully non-self-conscious, marked by repetitious in-jokes and male competition undercurrents. In other words, they feel like the eavesdropped interactions of two guys who defuse the discomfort and tension they feel around each other with their shared callings of humour and wit. In other, other words, they feel bizarrely real, for all of their staged reality. The casual, almost narrative-less structure might have admitted a rambling spirit, but Coogan and Brydon have a chemistry and commitment that keeps it light but tightly focused. They’ll apparently be going to Italy for a sequel, and we will look forward to travelling along with them again.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Travel

A Sojourn in Britain: Thoughts on Bath

August 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Romans and Georgian British alike agreed that Bath was a charming place to relax in, and modern travelers can see the wisdom in the opinion. The ages-old resort town in West Somerset has some natural advantages of landscape, nestled in the verdant valley of the River Avon, with its course winding through the town. But what might otherwise have developed as a quaint riverside country town instead became a sought-after retreat for centuries due to another natural advantage: the hot springs that bubble to the surface in the area.

Visiting Bath today puts the continuity of its function as a northern oasis through multiple ages of history into sharp relief. The remarkable archaeological site and interpretive museum erected around the excavated ruins of the Roman Baths of Aquae Sulis testifies to the city’s role in the Roman-ruled Britain of the mid-1st Century AD: not merely a centre of comfort and physical relaxation, but a focal point of pagan worship in connection with the sacred spring.

The museum displays and archaeological pits laid open for visitors are amazing enough, but next to the Great Bath itself, standing on the Roman paving stones with the much later terrace and neo-classical statues above, a different impression reigns. A past both dead and living drifts with the steam off of the heated waters there, a history utilitarian and recreational, physical and spiritual. From certain views, the white stone Bath Abbey (standing on the spot where the first King of all England was crowned in the 10th Century) rises above the entire scene, adding a whole other dimension of history and aesthetic effect to the scene.

Elsewhere, the legacy of the town’s status as a preferred retreat for the monied invalids and hypochondriacs of the Georgian and Regency eras is felt more strongly, particularly in John Wood the Younger’s residential architectural icons from the period, the Royal Crescent and the Circus. Jane Austen is the most renowned of these transplanted residents, though not during her own lifetime, and she was famously quite miserable in Bath. “Who can ever be tired of Bath?”, a line from Catherine Morland, her lead character in Northanger Abbey, is often attributed to Austen herself and stripped of the biting sarcasm with which she clearly meant it. “Taking the waters” of Bath’s spa was a catch-all prescription to cure various ills in the pre-bacterial medical prognoses of the day. This meant both immersion in and consumption of the spring-fed liquid, despite the astronomically high bacterial content (ironic, really) and the odd taste of the water. Still, no small number of comfortable gentlemen and ladies made the city their semi-permanent convalescent home in this time, and the attendant wealth has never really decamped.

It’s this legacy of luxury that predominates in the city today, and not only in its historic Georgian architectural tradition, either. The streets of central Bath, like those of any other popular travel destination, are now dotted with corporate chain shops, expensive local boutiques, and gourmet dining; the SouthGate area near the train station has even been redeveloped into a spotless open-air shopping mall, its scrubbed new three-story white-gold Bath Stone facades approximating the older edifices in the old town. As much as the conscientious class warrior feels compelled to bemoan such consumerist penetration, it’s more appropriate in Bath than most such developments in historic places. Its heritage is one of bourgeois consumption, after all, back to the Georgians and even to the Romans, to some extent. Continued consumption can’t honestly be considered anything but valid, from this point of view at least.

All of this background sets Bath up as a playground for the rich with a few historic sites to draw in the masses, and it’s hardly merely that. Like most of the country, Bath holds onto a stolid English charm despite the onslaught of corporate consumerism, and refuses to relinquish the gentility and ease that retreating visitors have sought there for centuries. Spanish guitar notes in a square, afternoon tea down on a quiet street, and a stroll along a flowing river all have an eternal appeal to a weary vacationing soul. It helps if the weather holds, too, and if it does then Bath can offer the above as well as the deep historical roots of its more famed diversions. Whatever those diversions and that history may be, they mean little if the current incarnation of the place fails to envelop the visitor in the same way. But Bath still has the power to enrapture, and who as long as it does, who indeed can ever be tired of it?

Categories: Culture, History, Travel

A Sojourn in Britain: Thoughts on Edinburgh

August 4, 2013 1 comment

A common line on Edinburgh, Scotland (no doubt fully approved by the city tourism board) is that during the festival month of August, when the Fringe Theatre Fest, Military Tattoo, and various other arts and culture extravaganzas consume the civic scene, it may be the most exciting city in the world. But what is Edinburgh the rest of the time? Historically and contemporaneously Scotland’s governmental, financial, and cultural capital, Edinburgh has both a stiffer, more formal reputation than its rougher industrial urban rival of Glasgow and a looser profile than the grim, traditional cities of nearby Northern England.

A peculiar mix of vestigial Presbyterian propriety and rugged self-reliance of the displaced Highlanders persists in Edinburgh today, and can still be discerned beneath the thick lacquer of globalized consumer capitalism that is layered onto the deep historical foundations of all major UK centres. It is more liberal and more conservative than a city like London in different ways (and is definitely much less multicultural), and outside of its tourist bottlenecks is doubtlessly possessed of less bustle than the massive metropolitan capital to theIMG_2059 south.

The sturdiest and most bustling of those bottlenecks is the Royal Mile, the high-to-low road winding along the herringbone spur of the Old Town from the heights of Castlehill to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the base of the rocky bulk of Arthur’s Seat (a hearty enough hike to the top, though not even a mountain, technically). The vertical tenement buildings that line the Mile now house souvenir shops hawking tartans and wool, oak-shelved scotch whiskey emporiums, overpriced pubs and restaurants of dubious quality, and museums, with luxury private residences above them. But their stones (their soft, absorbent surfaces blackened iconically by industrial soot) were once home to striving professionals and tradesmen, writers and philosophers, and destitute labourers, packed tight like sardines in the most grittily magnificent crushed tin box in urban Scotland.

Though the working class is far from vanished from Scottish life (their thick brogue, near-unintelligible to speakers on North American English, can be encountered here and there on the street or in the pub), the Old Town has spruced itself up and pedestrianized quite trimly, as befits a very old historical city centre in Europe. A sophisticated traveler may strike a pose of bemusement when faced with the blaring bagpipe music from the Thistle Do Nicelys, the dressed-up William Wallace buskers, and particularly the ubiquitous nighttime haunted tours. But something strange and gothic does indeed hang in the air in Edinburgh, drifting in on the maritime mist off the North Sea and lurking in the narrow winding closes that burrow down from the Mile like shafts into the city’s murky unconscious. Edinburgh’s macabre history of kings thrown from steeds over cliffs, religious martyrs, and burglar deacons doesn’t reduce the mysterious foreboding either.

This same mystery is not as discernible in the Georgian architectural symmetries of New Town, nor in the respectable inner suburbs. Even on the Royal Mile itself, one finds the feeling dissipates as the street’s eastern terminus is approached, with the strenuous modernism of the new Scottish Parliament Building (its jagged thrusts and brown-pole canopies sketching the suggestion of a defiant wooden Highland hill-fort) and the gated royal palace opposite it. Indeed, besides the slight differences in accent and the occasional notes of Bank of Scotland funny-money, much of Edinburgh would seem to be indistinguishable from any other part of the modern UK, and carries no more ineffable inscrutability than any other older city.

IMG_2072The will to modernity aside, this same foggy darkness that has hung around the popularly-disseminated image of Scottishness (a remnant of the influence of Macbeth on subsequent conceptions of the region, its people, and its culture, perhaps) is representative of a conception of Scotland’s past that the country attempts to capitalize on economically while reconciling its rough edges with a vision of its imagined future. After recent devolution legislation, the new Scottish Parliament houses something resembling a national government for the first time in over three centuries, and the Scottish National Party and other nationalist groups continue to agitate for independence from the British Union in the near future (despite middling support for this course of sovereignty among Scotland’s citizenry).

Although couched in more contemporary political terms (nuclear disarmament paramount among them), the dream of Scottish independence seems less a vision of its future than of its past, a vision that persists in the popular worldwide consciousness and therefore in Scotland’s tourist zones as well. That resilient image of Braveheart Scottishness – of lusty, fiercely loyal liberty of action and nose-thumbing resistance to the malicious influence of the usurping English – holds sway with the common visitor to a place like Edinburgh, and with so much exposure to it, how can even a local resident keep this discourse at bay?

It isn’t crystal clear that Scots firmly believe in the tartan-clad, haggis-wolfing version of their national identity, haunted as it is by so many pained ghosts and crushing defeats. On balance, the Act of Union has been good for Scotland, enabling its Enlightenment, its industrial development, and its economic assimilation into modern capitalism; a clean (or unclean, as a separation would more likely be) break from all of this would not necessarily be in the interest of even a more fully sovereign Scotland. But Scots do put plentiful effort into purposely selling this archaic image of Scotland to those from elsewhere who spend money in Scotland. Under the ideological imperatives of modern capitalism, is there any functional difference between believe in something and working hard to sell it to someone? Whatever a visitor understands Scotland as being now, they also must apprehend these durable (if stereotypical) elements of the national identity.

Categories: Culture, History, Politics, Travel